Archive for ‘Apocalypse Series’

Apocalypse 32: Keeping News Alive?

By , 17 December, 2009, No Comment

I’ve been exploring the Google-NYTimes–WaPo venture Living Stories, a site that aggregates coverage of particular events in real-time. As one reader put it, this seems like something news organizations should have done long ago.
As a consumer of news, I consider this a potential tool, but it needs to have a much wider array of news sources to be truly useful: my challenge as a reader today isn’t keeping up with the New York Times’ coverage of Pakistan; it’s keeping up simultaneously with the Times and the Post and the Journal and the BBC and the Guardian and about as many local outfits.

There are already ways to aggregate news from all those places, and to sort news from each organization by subject, and even to sort news by topic once aggregated. All we need is a way for news organizations to monetize this process. A better idea might be for the news industry to adopt a uniform standard for tagging their stories that would be compatible with all RSS readers and reading devices. If they simultaneously adopted my suggestion on embeddable ads, they’d be able to own monetization of their content wherever it went, without reference to third-parties like Google.

Because even though ad revenue from Living Stories is to go to the news organizations, Google is still powering the site and organizing the ads—they still have access to all the user data involved and that benefits them elsewhere. The more that all news organizations’ content merges on sites like these, the more centralized and more powerful Google’s data cache can become.

Moreover, Living Stories, or indeed any subject-based aggregation strategy, doesn’t solve the critical problem facing journalism today: if given a choice to consume content by subject, it’s likely that readers will choose to keep up with regular developments in national politics, hyperlocal affairs, sports and culture. Foreign affairs, state-level politics, and economics are less likely to receive sustained attention—everyone is interested when there’s a major intelligence breakthrough, a corrupt governor or a case of corporate fraud, but no one wants to the read the months of daily stories that lead to big scoops in these areas. And there’s no way to know, in advance, which companies or which states or which countries will produce that scoop—you have to pay, blindly, for daily reporting on all of it. Who is going to do that now?

I don’t think Living Stories does much to help us there. Like many Google products—Gmail, Reader—I like this one, but it’s unclear to me if its good or bad for the news organizations involved.

Apocalypse 30: Bellyaching in Britain

By , 30 August, 2009, 1 Comment

This past week saw the International Television Conference in Edinburgh, where various stars of British screen life pontificated on, what else, the future of media. The show stopper was a keynote lecture by James Murdoch where he railed against the BBC, Ofcom and government’s role in media more generally. His language was inflammatory and his politics insufferable, but I found myself agreeing with him about the economics of the emerging media model.

Here’s the core of his argument: we live in a world where there is no longer radio journalism and TV journalism and print journalism and web journalism, but simply journalism. Stories–whether told in words, pictures or sound–are all going to be transmitted the same way, as a combinations of 1s and 0s to be read on laptops and mobile phones. Murdoch calls this the “all-media market,” and the people who provide it “branded mediators.” Clumsy phrases, but they do the job.

Read More →

Apocalypse 29: In Search of Patient Investors

By , 14 July, 2009, 4 Comments

BusinessWeek, my one-time employer, is on the sales block as of today with potential buyers being Bloomberg, Pearson or a private equity fund of some kind. My first reaction is just sadness for all my friends there, a group of sharp-as-nails writers and editors. My second reaction is to pray that a media company beats the LBO boys for the buyout. Here’s why:

The brutal reality of news media is that there’s no business model right now. Our output is divided between ‘old’ and ‘new’ platforms at one ratio, while our revenue is divided at a different ratio. It will stabilize as we create a business model for monetizing online, whether by premium subscriptions, better more expensive advertising, or both. I wouldn’t be entering this business now if I didn’t think so. But I’m betting it will take at least five years.

A media conglomerate ultimately wants to be in whatever new media form emerges in five years. So they will invest—not recklessly, but liberally—in a magazine or newspaper as the industry gets to its future state.

An LBO firm, by definition, buys distressed assets to get profits out of them fast, and then exits the business to try something else. Trying to cost-cut your way into profitability at a time when sustainable profits are years out is a fool’s errand. That’s the lesson Sam Zell learned at the Tribune. I sure hope we don’t have to watch BW go through the same.

Apocalypse 28: Lessons from the film industry

By , 18 June, 2009, No Comment

My friend and indie filmmaker Michael Morgenstern has a blog where he covers, among other things, the shakedown that is taking place in the film industry. It sounds a lot like the one we’re experiencing in journalism–to quote Mike, the challenges are as follow:

“financing its films when the distribution model is defunct, monetizing the Internet where users expect to pay nothing, and conquering the crowd logic of moviegoers and the advertising budgets of the big players.”

In a three part series that you absolutely must read, Mike has laid out how indie film landed in its current quagmire and how he believes it might emerge. Key to his vision are two ideas that have also been touted by new media activists (journalism’s equivalent of indie directors) as models for news. One is micropayments; the other is using a central web portal as the launch and landing pad for non-digital offerings of the most popular content. I have two essential bones to pick with this vision–firstly, that the central web portal for journalism, film and maybe one day music will be Google and there are serious anti-trust issues there, and secondly, that the micropayments system assumes users will set up a digital credit card account accessible at all websites and there are serious privacy issues there. While Mike gets points from this business writer for being more economically savvy than most filmmakers I know, he brushes over both of these issues.

Furthermore, there is a problem in journalism that film doesn’t have–while news consumers will surely benefit from the new opportunities given to small players, news consumers will also lose if the old players are allowed to go under. Serious film aficionados aren’t really worried that there’s a social cost to seeing fewer summer blockbusters from big studios, while they are understandably bullish about the growing capacity of small producers to do high quality storytelling. Not only do the “big boys” in the news industry have good content to offer, the particular kind of good content they have to offer–expensive, investigative reporting–isn’t being replaced by the small producers as the distribution costs drop. That’s because the cost of that reporting isn’t on the distribution side; it’s on the production side, in the form of reporters’ beat expertise, time and travel. Micropayments won’t cover that.

I don’t know enough about film to know if Mike’s vision will work for them. But I know enough about journalism to know it won’t work for us.

Apocalypse 27: The Gift that Keeps on Taking

By , 15 June, 2009, No Comment

The nonprofitization of journalism continued this weekend with the decision by the AP, a nonprofit that serves for-profit papers, to get its content from other nonprofits and gift it to papers for free. This is a break from the AP’s old practice of effectively selling content to its members by charging them membership fees.

The only people now willing to fund reporting, it seems, are niche nonprofits and most have an ideological agenda. This is fine when you are consuming their content on its own terms: I know when I read The Nation that I am getting a liberal take on life. But when cause journalism is aggregated by the AP and then passed off as ideologically neutral to the country’s mainstream papers, I worry.

Moreover, as I’ve outlined before, these small cause outfits usually fund the hard costs of reporting but not the careers of full-time reporters, which means all of us take up jobs in non-journalistic fields to pay our bills, slowly eroding our journalistic expertise. 

Faced with the challenge of financing their own reporting OR EVEN financing the AP membership rate, it makes short-term economic sense for newspapers to rely on free content from nonprofit newsrooms. But in the long-term, it does nothing to solve the core problems. To the extent that local papers–the AP’s members–are supposed to revive themselves by focusing on what they know best (their local communities and their relationships to readers)–outsourcing MORE of their content to people with national agendas hardly seems helpful. Most importantly, how can newspapers tell the reading or advertising public that their content has value when they themselves are willing to pay exactly $0 to fund it?

Like many things now touted out as solutions to the media conundrum, the decentralized gift economy strikes me as a gift that keeps on taking.

Apocalypse 26: Lights at the End of the Tunnel

By , 22 May, 2009, No Comment

On Wednesday, I graduated from Columbia’s Business and Economics Journalism master’s program, which I’ve been blogging about a bit this year. As you might imagine, the two day Commencement was full of speeches about the value of journalism, and laden with allusions to the crisis we face now.

One surprise was that at the University-wide Commencement, Columbia President Lee Bollinger focused his address to the undergrad class primarily on the future of news, even though there are no undergraduate journalism students at the University. Bollinger seemed to be making some of the First Amendment arguments I’ve been making on this blog and elsewhere.

a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy. No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way. Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions

As I’ve been articulating similar notions, however, I have become more convinced that this idealist argument for media is unlikely to stick with the vast majority of the public.

What the public wants and needs is tangible evidence of why professional media matters. They need more hardhitting investigative reporting at precisely the moment when that kind of reporting is becoming impossible to finance. So another highlight of our Commencement cermony was when the J-school’s Commencement Speaker, Mexico’s newspaper revolutionary Alejandro Junco de la Vega, proposed his model for how to make media profitable. To paraphrase: Put down the phone and go back to basic, gumshoe-on-the-streets reporting; then cede the horse race to the Internet and become experts (his papers are partnering with academic institutions to research policy ideas and implications in a broad, sociological way). Advertisers, online or off, will never pay for this kind of Gonzo journalism, but that was Junco’s point–if you walk amongst your readers, showing them that you can identify trends in THEIR lives that they themselves cannot see or make sense of, that you can offer solutions to THEIR problems that they themselves cannot devise, if you do this in person, it is readers who will pay for content. My instinct is that this is a model for a media economy that is still mostly in print, and therefore for a developing, rather than a developed nation. I don’t know if it would work here, but I thought it was new and bold of him to suggest it. The speech, which was beautiful and intelligent on many other points, is here.

Our other Commencement Speaker was Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, most recently of Dowd-plagiarism fame. Marshall is certainly a cause journalist but unlike other web evangelists, he did not spend his time on the stand chastising “old” media or pooh-poohing the value of professionalism. His tone–staid and respectful–suggested that the realignment has begun, with the forces of reporting marshalling against the forces of spam. Josh Marshall realizes, as do we at the J-school, that he has more in common with us than any of us does with A. Maureen Dowd or B. Gawker.

Apocalypse 25: It’s Nicer to Be Right Twice

By , 20 May, 2009, 1 Comment

On Monday, we saw more evidence that the content model of the future will involve vertically integrated news organizations that will allow their audiences to engage at multiple levels for multiple prices. Today, we got a taste of what the ad model to support that might look like–the NYT’s Bill Keller told the NY Observer that the Times would seek some sort of ad share deal with Google rather than going after them aggressively as a monopoly the way others seem bent on:

The solution? He said that the Times is looking at a “carrot approach,” in which, along with the collaboration with Google, The Times would embed ads in its copy, and those ads would stay with the copy wherever it is reproduced.

Despite my own antitrust misgivings re: Google, this is exactly what I recommended for the news industry a while ago. And, I’ve also pointed out, the NYT is already a vertically integrated news org that has grown multiple layers of expertise in-house. It is nice to be right two days running. It’s even nicer to think that the future model of journalism is coming to focus.

Apocalypse 24: It’s Nice to Be Right

By , 18 May, 2009, No Comment

With Newsweek’s website re-launch, I’m more certain than ever that the WaPo company has the future content model down even if they are no further along than the rest of us in figuring out how to fix the ad model. On the content side, the WaPo group is moving to a single vertically-integrated newsroom with one expert reporter on each subject who is capable of covering that subject in all forms–newspaper article, blog post, magazine opinion essay, magazine narrative.

Once upon a time, EACH of the group’s properties did all of these things in different proportions, but now each of them will stick to its turf. The Post itself will give us news reports and opinion blogs but not narrative or long essays. The new Newsweek will give us opinion essays and narratives and even blogs, but not, for the most part, hard news. Foreign Policy will give us mostly blogged opinion that expands, occasionally, into longer articles. And Slate (and its children The Big Money and Double X) will give us magazine essays and news articles. There’s some overlap, but that is intentional: some of the content will run in multiple places in tweaked forms. A great blog post on one of the sites can grow into a longer article or essay for another, depending (and this is the key) on what format best fits the story’s content. Sound familiar?

The Newsweek redesign itself fits the magazine’s role within the group as a journal of lay opinion: the new page reminds me most of other opinion mags, especially The New Republic, which is superficially fitting since Newsweek plans to stay left-of-center too. Note also that the font on the new page is more or less the same as that on its academic opinion sister site Foreign Policy, perhaps a subtle way to reinforce brand.

Note finally that it is possible to get this kind of vertical structure without buying one of each kind of outlet: the NYT has managed to grow a newspaper, a blog network, a magazine and a collection of opinion essays in-house; the BBC has done the broadcast equivalent with its marriage of short- and long- form TV and radio.

If the ad model can be fixed to take the lead in revenue generation, while synching staff across platforms increases content expertise and reduces the costs of each story, then I think the media equation-at least at the national and international level-might be solved.

Apocalypse 23: One door closes…

By , 8 May, 2009, No Comment

Seems about time I step in with some thoughts on the demise of Portfolio. Truthfully, I have precious little in original thoughts to offer. While other print publications were clinging to their life vests by cutting costs and trying to transition to the web, CondeNast decided to invest in a product that would be even more print-y–longer form, glossier, costlier pages–than the incumbents in the business media market. Even though they had many smart writers, Portfolio was set up to fail.

At the other extreme, perhaps, are the media evangelists who seem a bit too excited by Portfolio’s collapse. It will all be fine, they tell us, because the citizen-activists are here to save the day. I will believe it when I see it.

But there is another reason to be sanguine about Portfolio. The collapse of the old media models, accelerated by this crisis, is beginning to spur some real innovation INSIDE old media on ways to merge with and absorb the best ideas from the newbies. Indeed, Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch says that’s the way to save Portfolio’s erstwhile competitors in the biz space: she proposes turning those organizations into full-time professional blogs, with the magazine as a weekly or monthly digest of the blog’s choice items, expanded out to article length, accompanied by the occasional long investigation or narrative. Is it just me, or is this the vertical structure I’ve been touting all along?

One of the benefits of such a structure would be the ability to use technology to add value to stories, instead of just for kicks or clicks. In other words, a professional blogger-journalist would ask themselves, “How does this story work best? As a blog post? As a slide show? As a video? As a long form piece? As a Flash animation? As a podcast?” and then be able to draw on all those technologies to deliver the best content possible. We’d have no more slideshows accompanying stories just to bump page-views, and no more long articles to convey quick info that fits best in a blog post. We’d also be able to nullify a major argument made by citizen-media activists–that they have a role to play because the old folks are incapable of, or unwilling to experiment with, harnessing new technology.

For a great example of how it might work, check out this slideshow from the BBC’s Robert Peston, noting that the Beeb is an old media institution with an integrated structure that now includes TV, Radio, online narrative/articles and blogs.

Apocalypse 22: Fiddling while Rome burns

By , 22 April, 2009, No Comment

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this week, to little fanfare, as perhaps befits a set of awards for such a troubled industry. I’m really pleased with the choice of WaPo’s Gene Robinson for Commentary; his columns on the presidential campaign were insightful but respectful, something rare in political opinion. I’m also happy to see the NYT (esp Jane Perlez and Carlotta Gall) get the nod for their AfPak coverage.

I’m less pleased with the lack of ANY awards for reporting on the financial crisis. Gretchen Morgenson and Vikas Bajaj both probably deserved to be recognized, as the did the WaPo’s series on AIG (nominated) and the WSJ’s series on the End of Wall Street (nominated).

But the real killer was this: In the category of breaking news, the NYT won a prize for its coverage of the Spitzer scandal. The NYT wins my prize for breaking news this year, but I’d have given it for the superior coverage the paper did of the election eclipsing, IMHO, both the WaPo and CNN (the usual dominators in horse race coverage) with its impressive use of multimedia features like live blogs of campaign events, district-by-district maps and polling data, and all manner of unique ways of calibrating and comparing the candidates. Breaking news in the digital age is not just about getting information out there–anybody with a cell phone can do that; it’s about providing depth and insight in real time. That’s where the journalism happens.

Nominating the Times for the Spitzer story (which was just info-dissemination) was shortsighted and backward-looking. Coupled with the lack of acknowledgement for financial reporting in a year dominated by financial news, the choice reflects, to my mind, the problem with groups like the Pulitzer board. Instead of using their considerable brand power and influence to lead reporters to a brave new digital future, they are rewarding increasingly irrelevant forms of content and ceding the public discourse to amateurs.

The amateurs will have no problem disseminating information, and may beat the journalists at this function, but there are no amateurs so far replicating the analytical depth of the big papers’ reporting on credit defaults. By trying to compete at a disadvantage in the info-breaking space, the professional media will only put itself out of business and we will all be the worse off for it. If organizations like the Pulitzer don’t incentivize a change of direction, it won’t happen.